When did journalists become so important? I know that may come as news to the many wonderful journalists worldwide who work for chump change and face never-ending editorial cutbacks in their offices, so let me rephrase: When did journalists become so important to documentary filmmakers?
I’ve written before about documentaries in which the majority of the talking heads are media figures who either broke a story or simply have an opinion about the subject of that story – most recently Hulu’s “We Work: Or the Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn” and Peacock’s “Epstein’s Shadow: Ghislaine Maxwell.”
That trend reaches its apotheosis in HBO’s new six-part series “Catch and Kill: The Podcast Tapes,” whose tagline – “How Hollywood’s darkest truths came to light” – encapsulates everything that is both interesting and frustrating about the show.
There is one very good reason to watch “Catch and Kill”: Any show that shines a light on the crimes and misdemeanors of sexual predator Harvey Weinstein is to be encouraged, lest we forget his actions and – equally importantly – all those enablers who let the former movie mogul get away with sexually abusing women for the best part of four decades and yet still evade censure today. All of those people who knew about the nondisclosure agreements, who helped draw up those NDAs, who were fully aware of Hollywood’s worst-kept secret (well, that and the vileness of fellow uber-producer Scott Rudin).
My main problem with “Catch and Kill” is that it’s more about Ronan Farrow than Weinstein himself. For instance, we get an episode dedicated to how Farrow himself became the subject of surveillance as Weinstein got increasingly fearful about his shameful actions being revealed by the young journalist (hello, Israeli dirty-tricks organization Black Cube!), yet we never at any point learn that the former Miramax head was sentenced to 23 years in prison after being convicted of rape and sexual assault in February 2020 – and then had the chutzpah to express sympathy not for his victims but for men in the #MeToo era.
We also never hear the name “Ashley Judd” uttered once, even though the onetime Hollywood star was one of the most important figures in the effort to unmask Weinstein. That’s because “Catch and Kill” is just one side of the story that exposed “Harvey Scissorhands.” The other – the New York Times report “Harvey Weinstein paid off sexual harassment accusers for decades,” which scooped Farrow’s New Yorker story “Abuses of Power” by five days in October 2017 – was the one that told Judd’s story. (Another, less explainable omission: Farrow never actually recounts the meaning of “catch and kill,” and how it refers to the old tabloid practice of buying a story from a journalist with the sole aim of never running it, in order to protect someone in a position of power.)
The Times and New Yorker shared the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for their work exposing Weinstein, and both stories have subsequently spawned mini-empires. Farrow followed his New Yorker articles with the 2019 book “Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies, and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators” and the 10-part “Catch and Kill Podcast with Ronan Farrow” later that same year, upon which this HBO show is based (more on that anon).
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The two journalists who broke the story in the NYT, Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, meanwhile, published “She Said: Breaking the Sexual Harassment Story that Helped Ignite a Movement” in September 2019 (again pipping Farrow, his book following a month later), having already sold the movie rights to Hollywood. Indeed, in what looks set to be one of 2022’s most intriguing movies, Zoe Kazan is set to star as Kantor and Carey Mulligan as Twohey, with “Unorthodox” director Maria Schrader helming from a script by Rebecca Lenkiewicz (who previously penned the Haredi female drama “Disobedience”).
As far as I’m aware, there are no plans to turn “Catch and Kill” into a movie, which makes the approach adopted in “The Podcast Tapes” all the more frustrating. This is a repackaged version of the original 2019 podcast, with directors Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato (“Carrie Fisher: Wishful Drinking” and “Inside Deep Throat”) given the frankly thankless task of creating imagery to fill in the screen gaps during the occasional voice-overs provided by Farrow, when he attempts to fill the void between his on-camera interviews from the original podcast.
While we should credit the podcast producers for having the foresight to make a visual record of the original interviews, it still ultimately makes for a visually uninspiring documentary, no matter how hard Bailey and Barbato work to create imagery to match Farrow’s undynamic narrative. For example, when one of Weinstein’s later victims, Ambra Gutierrez, recounts how she was unable to sleep the night before a sting operation to try to ensnare him, we see a nighttime bedroom scene in which the focus is on an alarm clock and a half-empty (or full, depending on your perspective) glass of water.
The stories here are all worth listening to – whether from victims such as Gutierrez and former Miramax employee Rebecca Chiu (in a particularly moving testimony) or other journalists who unsuccessfully tracked Weinstein for decades, such as The Hollywood Reporter’s Kim Masters and The New Yorker’s Ken Auletta. There’s also TV producer Rich McHugh, who worked with Farrow at NBC News on an earlier Weinstein exposé that was infamously nixed by the head of NBC News, Noah Oppenheim, in the summer of 2017 (and which formed the bulk of the reporting for Farrow’s eventual New Yorker story).
McHugh makes for an engaging on-camera presence, though you’d have to read “Catch and Kill” to learn that he “had this habit of trying out Yiddish words,” which “never went well,” according to the author. While the NBC News story is an important one, there’s no sense that the TV series tried to provide any more insight into why the news network killed its own story.
The key phrase in this review is “worth listening to,” because “Catch and Kill: The Podcast Tapes” never escapes its audio roots. I often found myself closing my eyes and just listening to the voices, finding that a more rewarding experience. After all, one can take only so many aerial shots of New York City, out-of-focus images of shadowy figures walking down hotel corridors and alarm clocks.
Despite these flaws, “Catch and Kill” does achieve several notable feats. First, it will make you want to watch/rewatch “The Insider,” Michael Mann’s masterful 1997 whistle-blower drama starring Al Pacino and Russell Crowe, which is referenced by Farrow several times here in regard to the NBC News incident.
Second, it reminds us of the vital work journalists do in uncovering the criminal actions of the seemingly great and good. Another excellent recent example was the 2020 Netflix documentary “Athlete A,” where writers at The Indianapolis Star helped bring former USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar to justice for his sex crimes.
Personally, I think “She Said” is a more rewarding book than “Catch and Kill,” and should make for a more engrossing experience on screen – an “All the President’s Men” for the #MeToo age. But there’s no denying Farrow’s crucial role in bringing down Weinstein. He may not be Woodward or Bernstein (yet), but I guess no one should begrudge him his well-deserved time in the spotlight. (He also played a secondary role in another more controversial 2021 HBO documentary, “Allen v. Farrow,” in which he was very much on mother Mia Farrow’s side in her ongoing media battle with his father, Woody Allen.)
Talking of spotlights, films starring journalists haven’t been this popular since the 1970s, when investigative reporters were the heroes of movies such as Alan J. Pakula’s “All the President’s Men” and “The Parallax View” (now there’s a film worthy of more attention), “The China Syndrome” and “Capricorn One.”
In addition to Tom McCarthy’s Oscar-winning 2015 drama “Spotlight,” set at The Boston Globe, there’s a brilliant 2019 Romanian documentary called “Collective,” which follows a team of reporters as they uncover the shocking truth about a 2015 Bucharest nightclub fire. Not quite so powerful but still richly enjoyable are Steven Spielberg’s 2017 drama “The Post,” Jason Reitman’s 2017 political drama “The Front Runner” and the 2019 British thriller “Official Secrets,” in which The Guardian played a starring role. (The trend is set to continue with Rod Lurie’s just-announced, currently untitled film about how a blogger uncovered the 1MDB financial scandal in Malaysia.)
If you want a documentary that focuses more on Weinstein’s victims than how the story was broken, I recommend you watch Ursula Macfarlane’s 2019 Hulu film “Untouchable,” which captures the true horrors of the Miramax chief’s crimes through the words and haunted expressions of some of his victims.
But if you didn’t closely follow the Weinstein case – which is still ongoing, of course, with the sex offender soon set to face another set of charges in Los Angeles related to alleged attacks on five women there between 2004 and 2013 – and want to discover one element of how he was eventually brought down, “Catch and Kill” is well worth watching, especially with your eyes closed.
“Catch and Kill: The Podcast Tapes” is on Cellcom tv, Yes VOD and Sting TV from Tuesday. It is also on Yes Docu weekly from July 19 at 10 P.M.